Almost twenty years ago, when I was in basic military training, my dad sent me a letter. My mom wrote to me almost every single day but dad penned one letter and it reached me at about the half-way point of my training. Admittedly, I was worn out, uncertain of why I had joined the Air Force, and I feared I’d “wash out” like many of the recruits I had joined with. Into that discouragement dad’s letter came and while I don’t remember every detail I do remember the simple fatherly encouragement to keep going. It’s what I needed. And every time I grew discouraged I’d unfold the letter and re-read my dad’s words.
The unnamed author of the letter of Hebrews gives us that kind of fatherly exhortation. The Christian life isn’t a training ground it’s the trenches, and we need to persevere. In fact, the Apostle reminds his readers that they have had “a hard struggle with sufferings” (10:32). The word “struggle” is related to the word we get athlete from — as if to say we’re in an athletic contest where suffering is trying to outdo, outpace, or overpower us. That isn’t easy. CS Lewis once observed: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Specifically, the sufferings with which they had a hard struggle were three. The Apostle reminds them that they were sometimes “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property” (verses 33-34). In short order, they suffered reproach, they suffered for their associations and friendships, and they suffered the loss of personal property.
This, of course, wasn’t unique to them. If you look down the corridor of history it’s easy to spot a multitude of Christians who have endured severe consequences for the sake of Jesus Christ — a good reminder that Jesus’ words are fulfilled in every generation of the church: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Even today with increasing measure this is becoming the experience of Christians. Society has transitioned from treating Christianity with a degree of apathetic neutrality to seeing it negatively. Aaron Renn has offered a compelling analysis of our contemporary culture: “Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and new public moral order.” A negative world will yield negative consequences for Christians.
Into those consequences the Apostle issues a clarion call: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and preserve their souls” (verse 39). Pause for a moment and notice the emphasis here — we preserve our souls. That might seem nearsighted to some. Maybe even a tad bit out of touch. After all, these are people who are having their possessions robbed from them. Naturally, we might expect them to be asking the Apostle: "How do we preserve our property?" More and more these seem to be the kinds of questions Christians are asking as culture continues to tighten the vice of suffering. We want to know how to preserve our jobs or economic status or business or cultural institutions or educational systems or entertainment and sports or a sense of safety or even our physical lives. To put it more bluntly, it seems many Christians are asking: "How can I preserve my comfortable and cozy way of life?"
We ask those questions because we perceive that in a hostile world these things are what's at stake. With that perception it’d be easy to dismiss the Apostle with that cheap and silly aphorism of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Some people are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.” The Apostle doesn’t seem to get it — or, at least, he’s not answering the question that’s often being asked. As home, property, and possessions are being robbed he writes about preserving the soul.
Perhaps, however, the Apostle gets something that many Christians in our own context don’t. Preserving a comfortable and cozy way of life isn’t the ultimate goal of Christianity. If we make it the ultimate goal the consequence is inevitable — we will shrink back. Little by little we will yield ground in order to preserve this present and passing world. And into that, the warning of God echoes: “If he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (verse 38). And the Apostle knows that to hold the line may require the loss of possessions, or jobs or economic status or institutions and systems. It may even require the loss of our life. That’s okay. It’s hard but it’s okay because the ultimate goal isn’t this world but an eternal and unfading inheritance, a better and abiding possession. Jesus taught: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
How do we preserve our souls in the midst of the hard struggle with sufferings? The Apostle says: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (verse 39). We preserve by faith. The Apostle John wrote: “For everyone has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4). This faith, we are told “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We live and die by promises that are not yet fulfilled, and we live and die by the persuaded certainty of unseen things.
In his remarkable little book The Great Divorce, CS Lewis tells the story of a busload of people who travel from hell to heaven. As the unnamed protagonist steps off the bus into the heavenly country he observes: “It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some difference substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.” With his vivid imagination Lewis depicts the inability of the characters to enjoy the more substantive reality of heaven — even walking on grass was, to them, hard as diamonds to their unsubstantial feet. The point shouldn’t be lost. There is a more substantive reality than the ephemeral reality that defines the existence of those not bound for glory.
Far from being out of touch with reality the Apostle is grounded in the greatest reality. This world isn’t substantial — it’s fleeting and transient like a wisp of smoke. And he’s encouraging us, like a spiritual father, to live and die for a much more substantive and concrete reality than all the comforts, happiness, and pleasures of this life can offer. Setting the substantive before us he writes to say: "Keep going."